Radio Boutros

A blog about online journalism.

Taking The Lede

with 7 comments

Journalistic writing depends on a good lede (or lead). And while this is an age-old rule, its importance is amplified in the age of blogs and new media. With news aggregators, Blackberry and iPhone apps and other technological innovations that display news feeds, the lede is often the only part of the story a person sees. A weak lede will lose readers.

The basics of lede writing are well-taught, but in a recent conversation I have had with Lew Wheaton, a long time journalist for the AP and now professor of Journalism at Bergen County Community College, it became clear problems with the lede are nearly universal. My students and his seem to have similar problems in the lede. Ledes are often filled with the passive voice, sentence fragments, improper use of verbs, and other errors. Unfortunately these mistakes are not limited to the classroom. These errors are sometimes made by professionals. Look at the following example from the AP found on Language Log:

Prosecutors dropped their case Friday against a security guard in the 2000 death of a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation — a case that took on racial overtones.

The problem here is passive construction:

a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation…

Who put the man in the choke hold? By hiding the subject in a passive construction the implication is that no one in particular is at fault. The blog post on Language Log continues:

The AP story’s lede choses to be vague about two questions of agency — who choked the alleged shoplifter to death? and who raised the issue of race in connection with the case? 

This vagueness occurs because of passive construction.

Blogger Tim Curran writes, 

…there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).

  1. The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
  2. The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).

This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.

Passive constructions aren’t the only crime. Journalist Deborah Potter details other forms of verbal abuse. Excessive use of gerunds and participles (the -ing form), subject-verb agreement problems, or sentence fragments with missing verbs are all too common. 

To be sure, there are crimes beyond the lede, but as Robert M. Knight notes in his text, A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing: The Craft of Clarity

There aren’t many communication sins that cannot be forgiven if the lede is written well. Mechanical problems, over-blown sentences, too many modifiers, passive voice, linking or “being” verbs, too many complex and compound sentences, monotonous rhythms, clichés– if the lede is right, that’s more important.

Now, one shouldn’t abandon the article after a successful lede, but if any one part of a news story is the greatest, it is the lede. Other sins, such is improper attribution and poor use of the medium (in this case, the blog), will be addressed in future posts.


Written by radioboutros

November 2, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. My class will be commenting on this or the “keeping it local” post. Watch for names ending in COM206.

    Lew COM206

    November 3, 2008 at 4:09 pm

  2. Thanks for including your class Lew.


    November 3, 2008 at 4:17 pm

  3. After reading this blog entry, I have finally realized the importance of a good lead. Most of the time, people are only reading the lead of the story and if you think about it, that is a scary thought. If one is using the “lead” of the story to form their judgments, then journalists need to find a way that makes the lead more informational yet less convoluted.
    In my case, I have a problem with passive voice. There is nothing wrong with passive voice in terms of grammar, but it can hide very important facts in the lead. For example, the example about the “man who was put in a choke hold” seems to be a little vague. We do not know “who” put the guy in a choke hold. These kind of sentences can really alter your opinion on the situation. And when most and most people are reading JUST the “lead”, it becomes even more important to make the lead as active as possible.

    Huma COM 206

    November 3, 2008 at 4:40 pm

  4. In the end, I think what it ultimately boils down to is that you need an impressive lede. People can be judgmental and can only mete out respect in microliters for poor ledes. Like Knight said in his notes, there aren’t many communication sins that cannot be forgiven if the lede is written well. If your lede is weak, people assume the rest of the writing will be weak as well.

    Michelle COM206

    November 3, 2008 at 4:42 pm

  5. I think the quality of lead is reciporal to the story. Writing a good lead is more important than a good story, but a good lead would also attract the readers to continue to read through it, so the quality of the story cannot be ignore.

    Ho COM206

    November 3, 2008 at 4:50 pm

  6. The lead of a story should paint a clear picture for how the entire story is going to be. Like a trailer for a movie a lead should express the main premise of the story. The lead should also be intriguing enough so that the whole story is eventually read.

    Eric COM206

    November 3, 2008 at 4:51 pm

  7. The lede does more than paint a picture. It paints a picture using the inverted pyramid style. The traditional story telling arc used in dramatic writing also paints a picture, but it saves the Who, What, When, Where, Why for the climax.


    November 3, 2008 at 4:58 pm

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